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Sunday, 14 April 2013

A 19th Century Contactee?

The picture on the left strikes me as looking a bit like an alien. Not a real alien, I mean, but one of those wise and benevolent aliens that were supposed to visit the “contactees” of the 1950s. This drawing doesn’t come from the 1950s, however, but from the 1820s. It was produced by the artist and mystical author William Blake (1757 –1827) towards the end of his life, and is entitled “The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams”. The drawing is one of a series of Visionary Heads that Blake produced at the request of an astrologer named John Varley.

Blake had experienced visionary encounters throughout his life, and the younger Varley (who is said to have “believed nearly all he heard”) was keen to get some of these down on paper. In keeping with the beliefs of his time, Blake tended to interpret his ethereal visitors as “angels”. A modern UFO believer might say this is simply pre-Adamski ignorance, and what Blake really encountered were misinterpreted aliens. But (as I’ve said before) this is grossly patronizing – it’s just as likely that modern alien encounters are misinterpreted angels!

Blake is often seen as an early precursor of the New Age movement. Like modern New Agers, he was convinced that everything the establishment taught you was wrong, and he was influenced by esoteric disciplines like Gnosticism, alchemy, yoga and Kabbalah. He even seems to have invented the term “New Age” itself – at least in its capitalized form (although to be honest, Blake tended to capitalize everything). In the preface to his poem “Milton”, he wrote: “The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer and Ovid; of Plato and Cicero, which all Men ought to contemn; are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible, but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce, all will be set right! And those Grand Works of the more ancient and consciously and professedly Inspired Men, will hold their proper rank and the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakespeare and Milton were both curbed by the general malady and infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the Sword. Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age!”

The best known and most striking of the visionary pictures Blake produced for John Varley was the image of a ghost – more specifically, the Ghost of a Flea (right). This was, according to Varley’s account, a “spiritual apparition” that was summoned by Blake and Varley during a séance – although it was visible only to Blake. As already mentioned, Varley “believed nearly all he heard”!

8 comments:

Kate said...

Varley sounds like an interesting character and an awfully easy target. I'm trying to work out how that picture could possibly be the 'ghost of a flea' though!

Andrew May said...

Hi Kate. There is quite a bit about the painting (and a bit about Varley, as well) on Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_of_a_Flea. Apparently it's a very small painting!

Ross said...

Blake's Ghost of a Flea makes an appearance in William S. Burroughs's COBBLE STONE GARDENS (Cherry Valley Editions, 1976). Here it is:

In a French train compartment passengers are unlocking their suitcases, taking things out..."Perdon messieurs mesdames...." Blake's Ghost of a Flea dressed in a ratty brown fur overcoat, cap and puttees, enters the compartment with a cloud of sulfurous steam leading an enormous brown mole cricket on a lead. The cricket burrows into suitcases scattering contents on floor. The passengers flail with umbrellas and walking sticks, hitting each other, screaming for the conductor. Now the cricket attacks the passengers, burrowing into offices.
"E's up me bloody box 'e is."
The compartment is a mess of blood and entrails. The Ghost plays taps. The cricket turns into a young Puerto Rican soldier on a recruiting poster saluting the flag and jacking off with his other hand.

Ross said...

William S. Burroughs's COBBLE STONE GARDENS was also published in the THE BURROUGHS FILE (City Lights Books, 1984).

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the info - I'd never come across that. It's a real throwaway, too - he just says "Blake's Ghost of a Flea" and leaves it at that. People who know the picture will understand the reference, but those who don't will have to come up with their own mental image!

Ross said...

Yes, it was only when I read your blog posting and the linked Wikipedia article that I achieved clarity on this. I've read that passage in COBBLE STONE GARDENS countless times over the years, and I knew it referred to a creation of William Blake, but I never bothered to look up precise information on it. So thanks for providing that.

alanborky said...

Andrew what a lot of people miss about the flea ghost's how accurate much of what it tells Blake becomes when viewed in the light of evolution because the piddling irritating little bastards we take them for nowadays were almost certainly immensely more huge and vicious way back in the days when they were feeding on dinosaurs.

And as someone with childhood onwards Blakean tendencies myself insects etc do indeed seem to view themselves as people though in their terms it's we who don't seem to realise how insecty we ourselves are.

But just in case you're still willing to credit that possibility I'll now shatter any open mindedness you've so far been willing to extend me by telling you even molecules and atoms seem to view themselves as people.

For instance one time as a meat eater I was going through a phase where I'd suddenly become aware I had a chunk of corpse in my mouth and very unnerving it was too.

Because it didn't persist though I carried on eating meat while all the time having a crisis of conscience.

Then one day while I was looking longingly at some pieces of ham in the fridge a - haha I know how this's go'n'o sound - carbon molecule suddenly seemed to voicelessly say to me "Which'd you rather be a slice of a cow's arse or part of one of Marilyn Monroe's boobs?" by which I understood it to be implying being consumed by a human was viewed by carbon kind as some sort of opportunity for evolutionary upgrade.

One thing I can tell you from personal experience though's Blake did his level best to accurately communicate his experiences as did Charles Dodgson when he gave his own non-narcotic induced experiences of seemingly growing to enormous or tiny height amongst a whole host of other perceptional traumas involving interactions with seemingly sentient animals to Alice.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for sharing that - it sounds like you are something of a modern-day William Blake yourself!